The overhead press is a compound multi-joint exercise that primarily targets the shoulders and the triceps. But it also a full body exercise as well.
Unknown to most, the overhead press is a full body exercise that works every muscle from your toes, all the way up to your shoulders. The overhead press requires an incredibly strong core and upper back. Plus it is one of the best exercises to build strong and muscular arms.
Here is how to perform the overhead press:
- Place a bar in a power rack, or squat rack, roughly chest height.
- Grip the bar with your hands just slightly outside shoulder width.
- Un-rack the bar using your torso and lower body (with the bar resting on the chest).
- Press the bar off your chest until it is over your forehead.
- Once past the forehead, push your head forward between your elbows.
- Continue pressing to lockout.
The bar should be over your spine (mid foot) the entire time you are performing the press. If the bar drifts forward, or behind, the mid foot balance point, then you could miss the lift. And possibly injure yourself.
The overhead press has a stereotype of causing shoulder injuries. If you have a history of shoulder problems, try experimenting with your grip a little bit to find the sweet spot for you.
For most, the hands will have to be narrower than the normal grip in order to prevent shoulder pain.
The overhead press is a very daunting and rewarding exercise for all of those who dare to conquer it. In this article, I am going to teach you how to do just that. You are going to learn how to overhead press like a champ.
P.S. This is a long article, so if you are looking for anything specific, please refer to the table of contents below for assistance. Thank you and if you find the article helpful, please be sure to share the article and leave a comment in the comments section below.
Overhead Press 101
History Of The Overhead Press
The overhead press has a long history going all the way back to the days of the old time strongman era.
I touched upon this briefly in my bench press article, but the overhead press used to be the bench press of it’s day.
The overhead press has it’s origins stretching all the way back to ancient Greece. But it is known that with the invention of the dumbbell in the mid 1800’s that the British military was using overhead presses in their training regimes.
When the barbell was later invented in the 1880-1890’s, the traditional overhead press first made it’s appearance.
Not so long after it came on the scene, it became a competition exercise, included with the clean and press.
Later on, with the invention of the bench press, the overhead press started to lose popularity. Finally, the overhead press was taken out of the Olympics as a contested lift in 1972.
But still to this day, the overhead press lives on. Why?
Because it is a great exercise that delivers awesome results. Only something great can truly stand the test of time.
How To Overhead Press
The simplest and easiest way to overhead press is inside of a power rack, or using a squat rack.
If you don’t have a rack, or stands to hold the weight, you can power clean the weight up to your chest. But this can be a hinderance when you are lifting heavy. Instead, find a rack to use.
Once the bar is on your shoulders, perform the following:
Make sure your hands are just outside of shoulder width.
Squeeze the bar as hard as you possibly can while trying to pull the bar apart.
Puff up your chest to cut some distance off the bar path.
Press the weight until it is over your forehead.
Push your head through your elbows once the bar clears your forehead.
Lockout at the top.
After you lockout the bar, be sure to lower the bar under control back down to your chest before repeating the entire procedure.
Make sure you are not leaning back, or forward too much. The overhead press is also known to cause back injuries due to cheating the reps.
Also, make sure that you take in a big breath of air into your belly and push the air against the sides of your abs while pressing the weight overhead. This will help stabilize the lower back.
Many people find it very difficult to imagine that the overhead press works your entire body. But it is very simple, and enlightening, actually.
Later on, when we go into our full detail explanation, this will start to make a lot more sense. But for right now, let’s just briefly go over the main muscle groups.
The entire musculature of the deltoid is worked in some way during the overhead press. More the middle and front deltoids. The rear deltoid performs more of a stabilizing role.
Plus, the entire rotator cuff is at work to stabilize the head of the humerus in the gleno-humeral joint. The rotator cuff is a sore spot for many upper body and overhead athletes. So learning how to strengthen these muscles is a must.
Your shoulders mainly push the bar immediately off your chest until the elbows reach 90 degrees. They still help push towards lockout, but your triceps help a lot more in the latter stages of the exercise.
In addition to the forearm muscles and biceps stabilizing the bar, the triceps also play a major role to press the weight overhead.
The triceps are the largest muscles of the upper arm and are tremendously underutilized in most training programs. Most of you are only using a small percentage of your true tricep strength.
The triceps start to kick in when your elbows reach 90 degrees. They greatly contribute to locking the bar out. But you need to make sure your elbows stay tucked in at a 45 degree angle to get the most out of your triceps.
Your upper back is probably THE most important muscle group of the overhead press. Your upper back serves as your primary form of stabilizing your shoulders.
Contrary to what most lifters hear, your rotator cuff does not actually do too much for stabilizing your shoulders. It is your upper back. Here’s why.
The muscles of the rotator cuff can only stabilize the shoulder via the head of the humerus. But, if the scapulae retractor muscles are weak, then the rotator cuff literally shuts off. It is like flicking a switch.
So if the upper back is weak, or underutilized, then the shoulders will remain unstable. Similar to the bench press.
However, unlike the bench press, the upper traps also play a role in assisting the press. When you have the weight of the heavy bar on your shoulders, you have to shrug your shoulders up before actually pressing the bar overhead. This requires the help from the upper traps.
Plus, the upper traps are very important at the top of the movement. In order to prevent a shoulder impingement, you need to shrug again at the very top near lockout. This helps give your shoulders a little more room to breathe.
All three of these muscle groups make up the core musculature. It is NOT just the abs.
The core helps to stabilize the spine and prevent any back injuries. Plus, it actually helps you lift more weight via hydraulic amplification. (More on that later.)
The glutes help to stabilize the sacrum and lock the lower back into place. This helps to prevent the lower back from hyperextending. It also helps prevent the pelvis from anteriorly tilting. If the pelvis anteriorly tilts, then the lower back will start to overcompensate for the lower abs.
The quads are very useful in the initial part of the lift. When you squeeze the glutes, you want to have your knees locked out and you are going to have to push your hips forward slightly.
This is to keep the bar moving in a straight line.
When the hips go forward, you are going to feel a huge stretch in your quads. This is perfectly normal and is vital to getting more muscle assistance from the lower body.
Your feet also play an important role. Similar to the squat and deadlift, you want to screw your feet into the ground. This will help create torque in the lower body, which will lead to better glute activation.
When pressing, you may be afraid of dropping the weight on top of your head. It is a common fear because it is scary to press a heavy weighted object over your head. This is why so many amateur lifters mistakenly look up at the bar when they are pressing it.
The easiest way to miss a lift is to simply lower the bar back down to your shoulders. That’s it! It is really simple and safe. You can also throw the weight away from you, preferably in front of you, if you suddenly lose strength or stability.
You may piss off your gym’s manager and scare a couple of bystanders, but at least you will be alright.
The safest and less noisy option is to use the safety pins inside of a power rack. The pins should be adjustable so it can accommodate any body type.
Think of the pins as your steel guardian angels. Since the overhead press is dangerous for spotters, unless seated, you will need to use the rack as your spotter.
Another thing to avoid is using a thumbless, or false grip. The false grip is used by elite lifters in the bench press to lift more weight. It helps position your hands in a way that activates the triceps better and gains more leverage over the bar.
The risk with a false grip is dropping the bar on your head. Since your thumb is not there to help hold the bar, the bar can fall out and land on you. So make sure you keep your thumb wrapped fully around the bar under all circumstances.
Make sure you use a barbell with a diameter small enough to fully wrap you thumb around. If you are using an axle bar with a fat grip, it can be difficult to get your hands around the bar. Thus you would have to use a false grip by default.
Avoid axle bars and just use a traditional barbell.
As mentioned above, the overhead press has ben associated with shoulder injuries over the years.
The main culprit behind most of the shoulder injuries is bad form and technique. Almost all shoulder injuries can be prevented with good form. So above all else, make sure you are pressing with solid form.
One of the most common injuries from pressing is a shoulder impingement. There are all kinds of things that can cause an impingement. But for the press it all has to do with the lockout.
When you lockout the bar, you have to shrug your shoulders up during the lockout. Otherwise, the head of the humerus will not have enough room to move and it will collide with the top of the shoulder blade. This is a shoulder impingement.
By shrugging the traps, you are effectively moving the shoulder blades out of the way for the head of the humerus.
You can also have an impingement just from poor mobility as well.
As will be discussed later, your thoracic spine needs to have adequate extension for good shoulder health.
If the upper back is excessively rounded, or slightly rounded, it will limit the range of motion of your overhead mobility. If you have poor thoracic mobility, squeezing the upper traps will not make a difference. Only working on your thoracic mobility will.
Lower Back Injuries
Another major concern is the lower back. As we discussed earlier, the overhead press is not just an upper body shoulder exercise, it is a full body exercise.
You are standing up straight and pressing a heavy barbell over your head. Yes, your arms are doing most of the work. But the rest of your body is providing the stabilization and support for you to perform the press.
And just like the deadlift, the lower back is the weak link for most of you.
When you overhead press, you want your torso to be completely straight. This means that you have a nice neutral spine.
This makes the lift easier in two ways. First, it helps to shorten the distance to lockout. Second, it helps bring in more muscle groups (chest) to complete the lift. Thus, you compromise your safety to lift more weight.
I mentioned this in my deadlift article, hyper-lordosis is even more dangerous than a rounded back. In this position, the discs are placed in a more compromised position with less support.
Care has to be taken to ensure a proper spinal position throughout the entire lift no matter what.
If the weight gets really heavy, the temptation to lean back will be even greater. In these cases you should consider wearing a lifting belt to help support the spine.
Is Leaning Back Cheating?
This is a tough question to answer. If the lean back is excessive and it jeopardizes your safety, then yes it is absolutely cheating.
This exact question was the main reason the overhead press was removed from the olympic games in 1972.
Too many of the athletes were leaning back and trying to bounce the weight up. Every press attempt started to look like a jerk. So the ruling committee decided to eliminate the exercise entirely.
When the weight gets heavy, you should lean back quickly and slightly to gain as much leverage over the bar in the bottom position. This will give you power out of the bottom.
But it needs to be done correctly, otherwise it will put your safety at risk. You will find out how to do this later.
If, on the other hand, you are leaning back during the middle of the lift, or near lockout, then yes it is definitely cheating. In this case, your triceps are probably weak and need some extra work.
Overhead Press Technique
Let’s now go into full detail through the entire setup procedure. You’ll start with the grip first and we’ll end with the lockout. This way you will know and commit to following the right sequence of steps when the time comes to lift the weight.
Hand placement is everything in the overhead press. Just like the bench press, you want to grip the bar with your hands just outside of shoulder width.
If you go too narrow, you will add more distance onto the bar and you will place more stress on the triceps and take strength away from your shoulders.
Likewise, if the hands are too wide, then the shoulder will do too much work and the triceps will be under utilized.
The hands need to grip the bar in the right spot in order to utilize the right balance of tricep and shoulder strength.
You should also be squeezing the bar as hard as humanly possible. Think of trying to make a hand imprint in the bar. Research has shown that by squeezing the bar harder, you actually activate more muscle groups in the shoulders and arms.
Use The Pull Apart Technique
Another tactic to use in the press is the pull apart technique. The pull apart technique helps you to activate more musculature in the upper back, such as the traps and rear delts.
To perform this, simply squeeze the bar and try to pull it apart, outwardly, as hard as you can while pressing the bar. This should be done in the bottom position all the way through to lockout.
Make sure your put in some practice with light weight to condition your muscles. This is very fatiguing at first.
Plus it also helps you better activate the triceps and shoulders. How does it do this? With torque.
When you are pulling the bar apart and squeezing the bar, you are generating a spiral of tension that travels all the way up your arms into the shoulder girdle. The tension you feel is torque.
This torque forces the nervous system to recruit more muscle fibers. More muscle fibers will help you lift more weight.
No False Grip!
You should also make sure that your thumb is fully wrapped around the bar at ALL times. No exceptions.
When you don’t, or can’t, wrap your thumb around the bar, you are using the false grip.
The false grip is sometimes called a thumbless grip. This technique is used by elite powerlifters in the bench press to help the shoulders and triceps gain better leverage over the bar.
The false grip allows you to get your shoulders into a better position of external rotation. This is the more dangerous alternative to the pull apart technique.
Do not ever attempt to use this grip. Leave it to the pros.
Also make sure you use a barbell with a diameter as close to 28 mm as possible. A diameter of this size will help you get a good grip on the bar.
Avoid fat bars and axle bars. If the bar is too wide, it will be harder for you to fully wrap your thumb around the bar.
Make sure you also keep your wrists straight (neutral) throughout the overhead press.
The most common mistake you will see is the dreaded bent wrist. The exact same problem you always see in the bench press.
When the wrist is bent, it places your triceps in a mechanical disadvantage. Thus, your elbows will have a tremendous amount of stress and pressure on them in order to compensate. Using elbow sleeves will not solve your problem, proper form will.
Plus, you also need to keep the bar towards the heel of your palm. When the heel of you palm has a large amount of pressure on it, it will send a signal to the nervous system to activate your triceps more.
To find the precise place on you hand, hold your hand up to your face with your palm facing you.
Now move your eyes to the bottom most corner of your palm. You can see it circled on the image below.
This is the sweet spot that generates the most power out of the triceps. Simply press it as hard as you can and feel your triceps activate.
When the wrist are bent, the bar is nowhere near this position. It is only when the wrists are neutral that the bar can be over this sweet spot.
It is imperative that you keep your elbows directly under the bar throughout the press.
The most common fault you will see are the elbows going to far in front of the bar. This causes the triceps to lose leverage over the weight and it dumps more weight onto your shoulders and elbows.
If the elbows go to far behind the bar, then you will most likely miss the lift. Unless you have insanely strong brachialis muscles.
You also want your elbows to be tucked in a 45 degree angle. When the elbows are tucked, the triceps and shoulders have a proper balance of strength and coordination.
If the elbows are too flared out to the sides, then the shoulders will be holding more of the weight. Plus, this may cause more damage to the actual shoulder joint itself.
If the elbows are too tucked in, then your triceps will be holding more of the weight. Plus you will add more distance to the lift.
Being too tucked will also make it harder for you to keep the bar balanced over the mid line balance point.
When you set your grip and get your elbows and wrists in the right position, you are ready to un-rack the bar.
To un-rack, simply place your feet under the bar and get your chest under the bar until the bar is on top of your shoulders.
Then use your legs and perform a mini squat to un-rack the bar. Now you didn’t waste any energy in your arms. You are fresh to begin the press.
Now take two steps back and make sure that your feet are directly under your hips and are about hip width apart.
Keep the elbows directly under the bar, then begin the press.
Whoa! Hold on a second! That was a lot of information. Let’s break this down a little more to make it a little bit more digestible.
Before you un-rack the bar, you want to have your feet directly under your hips and under the bar. That way you just have to use your legs to lift the bar out of the rack.
Don’t lean in and un-rack. Just like a squat, we don’t want to have our lower back doing anything except supporting the weight. There is a high probability that you will lose the weight doing this as well, since it is on your shoulders.
Then take exactly two steps back.
The first step can be from either leg, it doesn’t matter. Then the second step should line up with the first step. Both feet should be hip width apart with your toes facing forward.
If the feet are facing forward it makes it easier to generate torque from the lower body to help protect the lower back and to also to generate more power via hydraulic amplification (more on this later).
If your stance is too narrow, then you will have to engage the core more to balance the weight.
On the other hand, if your stance is too wide, then you will have a harder time engaging the muscles of the lower body for support.
This all depends though on your body structure. Taller guys may need to make their stance slightly wider than hip width.
You can also use a staggered stance, but I wouldn’t recommend it. Using a staggered stance is too easy to cheat. Plus a staggered stance will tempt you to jerk the weight, which is also cheating.
You also want to make sure that you keep your knees completely locked out.
If your knees are bent, then you are cheating. You are not using your arms, you are getting help from your lower body. This is not a press, but a push press.
The push press is a great assistance exercise for the press. But it is not a replacement.
Keep your knees locked out throughout the lift. This will ensure that your lower back will stay neutral and protected.
And it will also help you engage the quads.
Keep the hips neutral and locked out.
The hips should be directly under the lower back. If the hips go into anterior pelvic tilt, or posterior pelvic tilt, then the lower back will be placed at greater risk for injury.
Although this sounds simple enough to do, it is actually quite difficult. Especially when the weight starts to get heavy.
To ensure your hips stay neutral, simply squeeze your glutes as hard as you can while performing the press. This will keep your lower back safe.
When the glutes are squeezed, the sacrum locks inside of the hip girdle. When the sacrum is locked in, the lower back has a very hard time rounding.
This is because the sacrum is at the base of the lower back. So if it is locked in, it will keep the rest of the lower back neutral.
If the pelvis is anteriorly tilted, then the psoas and the spinal erectors will have more weight on them, which can place the lower back at a greater risk for injury.
The breath is very important in the overhead press.
However, make sure you are pushing the air into your pelvic floor. Most “belly breathers” think they are breathing into their bellies, but really they are just breathing into their diaphragm.
Pushing the air into the pelvic floor will ensure that you are breathing correctly.
Once the air is down there, push it against the sides of your abdominal wall. This helps activate the obliques and deep core musculature.
As a result, your core will be better activated and will help stabilize the torso when lifting heavy weight.
Think of the core as a conduit between the upper and lower bodies. If the conduit is weak, then there will be a weak transfer of strength from the lower body to the upper body. But if it is strong, then the transference will be strong.
You want to inhale before you begin the press and hold your air down in your belly. Once you begin to push the weight up overhead, you want to push some air out of your lungs.
But it is only some air. You do not want to push all of the air out of your lungs.
If you exhale too quickly, you will lose stability and therefore lose strength from your lower body. Only exhale completely after the last rep.
Breathing this way also has another major benefit, hydraulic amplification.
What Is Hydraulic Amplification?
Hydraulic amplification is a large neurological activation of more muscle tissue due to an increase of intra abdominal pressure.
What this means, in down to earth English, is whenever you force air into your core (belly), your body’s nervous system will force more muscle fibers to activate throughout your body.
Think of your core as a stereo receiver and your muscles as speakers. When you increase the pressure in your core, it is like turning the volume dial up on the speakers.
Not only will your deep core musculature be more active, but you will build a bulletproof torso that will help protect your spine from damage.
The bar should be resting on your shoulders between the middle and front deltoid, just like the front squat.
Don’t let the bar come too far down on the chest, otherwise you will have poor leverage over the bar. You will also place your elbows at a greater risk for tendonitis in this position.
Likewise, you don’t want to have the bar up too high on your shoulders. If the bar is too high, you risk putting pressure on the arteries of the neck.
If there is too much pressure, you can actually block blood flow to the brain and blackout. The blackout itself is harmless, but that heavy bar is not. If you blackout with a heavy bar on your chest, you can bet that bar is coming down with you.
You want to have your elbows directly under the bar during the press.
Although the bar is resting on the shoulders, like the front squat, the elbows need to stay down so the deltoids can push the bar off of the chest.
It is NOT a front squat, or push press. The elbows do not go in front of the bar. The elbows need to move in front of the bar to stabilize and hold the bar in position when the torso is moving.
Since the torso is not moving, you do not need to keep your elbows here. It gives you no advantage over pressing the bar.
Pressing The Bar
Now the fun part, pressing the bar up to lockout.
Once you are set into position, you want to initiate the hips by spreading the floor apart first.
Then you want to squeeze your glutes. With torque coming into your glutes, they will be able to contract harder.
Now push your hips forward just slightly while keeping your glutes squeezed and start contracting your quads.
Now start pressing the bar off your shoulders until it clears the top of your head. Since you are leaning back slightly, the bar will travel up in a straight line.
Once the bar clears your head, push your head through your elbows and continue pressing until the bar is locked out over your head. That’s one rep.
Let’s zoom in a little closer and see more of what’s going on here.
Spread The Floor Apart
All movement starts with the feet. With that said, you want to spread the floor apart to generate torque in your hips and legs.
Think of your feet as if they are raptor claws digging into the floor. You want to dig your toes into your shoes and push your foot into the floor as hard as you can. While at the same time you want to try to rip the floor apart.
You should try to rip the floor apart by trying to turn your feet outward. This will generate the necessary amount of external rotation to properly activate the glutes.
Without torque, your base of support will not be as strong and you will be at a disadvantage for pressing heavy weight.
Squeeze The Glutes
The glutes pop up in every exercise, even the overhead press.
Since you want to keep the lower back neutral and stable, you need to squeeze your glutes as hard as you can.
The glutes, when squeezed, lock the sacrum inside of the hip girdle. The Sacrum is the lowermost vertebrae. When it is locked into place, it prevents the lower back from rounding.
This is very important, because when we push the hips forward in the next step, the pelvis needs to stay neutral. It cannot go into anterior, or posterior, pelvic tilt. If it does, the lumbar vertebrae can risk injury.
Contract The Quads
When you contract the quads, you are creating a stretch reflex in the bottom of the press that will help you press the bar from a dead stop.
This will give you a slight boost of momentum in the bottom position. Otherwise, it would be just like the deadlift and you would be overcoming dead weight.
Too many lifters try to just press the weight without any action from their lower bodies. This will definitely impact your numbers in the long run.
The quads also play another major role, they help transfer energy from the feet to the abs.
The lines of tension running from your feet all the way into your hips represent a transference of energy from the feet. If there is a break in tension anywhere along this line, then the chain is broken and force is lost.
In this case, you want the tension to transfer from the feet into the abs, specifically, the obliques.
This will help to greater stabilize the torso and thus stabilize the shoulders. Plus it will help the glutes stabilize the pelvis.
Push The Hips Forward
Now the tricky part. You need to push your hips slightly forward just slightly. This is to be done AFTER you squeeze the glutes and contract the quads. Otherwise, your lower back will fall into lordosis.
The tricky part here is to keep the pelvis neutral while pushing it forward. It is very tempting to move the pelvis into anterior, or posterior, pelvic tilt.
But DO NOT do this! It is very bad for your spine and it will not help you better stabilize your torso.
Another mistake you may make is pushing the hips too far forward.
If this happens, the chest will naturally face up towards the ceiling and the movement will turn into an incline bench press. Your lower back will suffer as a result.
If you lean back further, the chest will get involved, so you will be using more muscle groups. Plus, the range of motion is shortened. This makes the lift much easier. But at what cost?
The movement is slight, quick and subtle. You will know how far to go if you contract the quads before pushing the hips forward.
The quads will catch the pelvis like a rubber band and sling shot them back into the right position while the glutes stabilize the pelvis.
This means you better press that bar as hard as possible the second your hips start to move forward. This is not to be done slowly. It is a fast movement.
Otherwise you will not get any elastic tension in your hips and will lose explosiveness in the bottom position.
Move The Chest Back
The chest needs to move with the hips. The hips go forward slightly, the chest moves backward, slightly. Both of these two movements need to occur at the exact same time.
Again, same drill as the hips, you only want to move the chest back just slightly. This is not an incline press.
Moving the chest too far back will place an enormous amount of pressure on your lumbar vertebrae.
I personally know more lifters who have hurt their backs from overhead pressing than they have from deadlifting.
As soon as you push your hips forward, push the chest back simultaneously. At the same time drive that bar off your shoulders like you mean it. Keep driving until it clears your head.
The bar should be moving in a straight line.
Press The Bar Over Your Head
The bar needs to clear your head before you move the hips and chest back into their starting position.
This is to help maintain a straight line bar path.
If the chest and hips don’t move, you will have to press the bar in a cured line around your head.
You know what the shortest distance is between two points? A straight line.
You don’t want to add more distance to the lift. That will only make the exercise harder and lower your numbers. This is one of the main reasons for pushing the chest back and the hips forward.
Push Your Head Through Your Elbows
Once the bar is over your head, you want to push the chest forward and the hips backward, to their original positions as quickly as your can.
At the same time, push your head forward between your elbows to bring the bar back in line with the spine and the mid foot balance point.
Do not try to move the bar either forward, or backward, when doing this. Most lifters do this when they are afraid of smacking their head into the bar.
As long as you have pushed the bar over your head, you don’t need to worry about smashing into it.
Once the head is through the elbows, you need to use your scapulae to stabilize the bar.
When the bar is out of your field of vision, your body may start to lose stability. This is due to a switch in kinesthetic awareness from sight to feel.
This is why I am against using mirrors. If you constantly rely on the use of a mirror, then you will start to become dependent on them. Once you take the mirror away, you will have a harder time adjusting to certain exercises.
The overhead press is one of those exercises. Along with the clean and snatch.
As soon as the bar is over your head, you now need to pinch your shoulders together to stabilize and support the bar.
After pinching, you just need to keep pushing as hard as you can and drive the bar all the way up to lockout.
When locked out, the bar should be in a straight line over the spine and mid foot balance point.
The bar should not be too far forward, or backward.
You also need to pinch your shoulder blades up as well. This is to help prevent the shoulder from impingement when locking out the bar.
In the bench press, you want to always keep your shoulder blades pinched back and down throughout the lift.
But in the overhead press, you pinch them back and down initially, especially when the bar clears your head.
However, as the bar approaches lockout, you keep them pinched back. But you now need to pinch them up, like a shrug.
Lowering The Weight
Lowering the weight should be the exact reverse of the movement. You have to reverse all of the steps to bring the bar back down to your shoulders. That part is easy.
But don’t let the bar come crashing down on you in a free fall motion. Free fall means that an object encounters no resistance on its way down. In other words, you just drop it back onto your shoulders.
The bar needs to be be lowered in a slow and controlled manner. Otherwise you can lose integrity in your form, or worse, you can injure yourself.
If you are new to the overhead press, then you should go slower. This will help you drill down the proper movement patterns.
Once you become more experienced, you can speed it up and lower the bar quicker.
When you become really skilled, you want to lower the bar quickly and then immediately press it back up as quickly and explosively as possible.
This helps to create a stretch reflex in the bottom position. The greater the stretch reflex, the faster the weight will go up.
This may not sound like much, but trust me this makes a huge difference. Every little advantage helps when you are pressing big weight for reps.
Most Common Mistakes
Using Your Legs
The overhead press is a strict exercise that needs to bone with raw strength. This means you do not bend your knees and use your legs.
The knees need to be locked out and the bar needs to be pressed up using your arms and shoulders.
It is perfectly ok to get assistance from your lower body by means of generating torque. But it a whole other ball game to actually bend your knees and heave the bar up over your head.
That is a different exercise. It is called a push press. The push press is a fantastic assistance exercise for the overhead press, but it is not a replacement.
Becoming overly reliant on using your legs will help you build a more powerful squat lockout and vertical jump, but it will not translate over to building more upper body strength.
After all, the goal of the overhead press is to build more strength in the shoulders and triceps for building a bigger bench press. So leave the legs out for right now. Otherwise you are just cheating.
Overarching The Lower Back
The lower back needs to stay neutral throughout the entire movement. Although the hips move forward just slightly, the lower back still remains neutral.
When the weight gets heavy, you will be tempted to overarch your lower back and turn the exercise into an incline bench press.
It is a natural reaction in almost every lifter. Think about it from your body’s perspective.
Your body doesn’t think, or care about, lifting bigger weights, building muscle, or looking good. It only cares about one thing, survival. So when you are pressing too heavy a weight, your body’s instant reaction is going to be “get this thing off of me”.
At this point, your body is willing to do whatever it takes to complete the rep, even jeopardize your safety.
To your body, blowing a disc is better than having the bar fall on you.
But you have to focus and realize that you are not in danger and you don’t need to jeopardize your safety.
If you find yourself struggling, lower the weight and work on your form. Go through all of the steps you read above and really drill down your technique.
Bending Your Wrists
The overhead press requires strong neutral wrists. This means that you keep them straight.
The habit most lifters fall into is bending the wrists. It is a perfectly natural pattern for your body to fall into because it feels more secure this way.
But this is a fallacy. When the wrists are bent, you are actually pressing at a mechanical disadvantage.
It is just like the bench press. When the wrists are bent, you are placing undue stress on your elbows and losing power from your triceps.
The elbows try to compensate for this and your risk for tendonitis increases. Plus since the triceps are not working as efficiently as they should, the shoulders will have to hold more weight (literally).
When you keep the wrists straight, the bar is perfectly in line with the elbows. Now you are getting optimal efficiency from your triceps.
But that is not all. You also want to keep the bar over the heel of you palm. There is a bundle of nerves in the heel that activates the triceps under pressure.
To find it, simply hold up your hand with your palm facing you and place your fingers in the bottom most right hand corner. Then press it as hard as you can.
If you press hard enough you will feel your triceps activate. This is where you want to push from.
Pressing The Bar Too Far Forward
Pushing your head through your elbows can be intimidating for some. But rather than take their time and learn how to do it with lighter weight. They instead cop out of it by pressing the bar in front of them.
This places the bar in front of the mid foot balance point during the lockout.
Remember, the bar need to be pressed up in a straight line. This is why you need to push the hips forward and move your chest back. It is to move your head out of the way for the bar.
On the other hand, if you decide not to do this and decide to just press the bar in a curved line, you will end up pressing the bar too far in front of you.
Also upper body mobility can be a problem as well. Some of you will find that you are too stiff to actually get into the right position. If that is the case, you will need to work on your thoracic mobility. Look in my bench press article and find the section on thoracic mobility and perform the exercises in that section.
Elbows In Front Of The Bar
Before you actually begin pressing the bar, you want to have the bar resting on your shoulders between your middle and front deltoid. Just like you would in a front squat.
However, unlike a front squat, you do not want to have your elbows in front of you.
You want to have your elbows directly underneath, and in line, with the barbell. This gives your triceps the most efficiency possible. Plus, it also helps to stabilize your shoulders.
When the elbows are out in front of the barbell, you are not really gaining any leverage over the lift. Since the overhead press is a strict movement, you have to press it off your shoulders with raw strength. Keeping the elbows directly under the bar is the best way to do this.
In the front squat, and push press, you keep the elbows in front to help stabilize the bar because your torso is moving up and down. If your elbows were directly under the bar in these scenarios, it would start to roll off of you.
Since you are not moving your torso up or down, keep the elbows directly under the bar.
Overhead Press Assistance Exercises
For any and all exercises, the best assistance exercises are the ones that most closely resemble the main lift. These are called primary assistance exercises.
The primary assistance exercise not only helps you to train the muscles of the main movement, but it also strengthens the neural pathways for the main lift.
This means that you want to choose assistance exercises that will closely mimic the main exercise as much as possible.
The more efficient your nervous system is at innervating the muscles, the more smooth and fluid the exercise will be. Thus, less wasted energy and less motivation and drive to perform the lift.
Now on the flip side, you also need to condition your muscles from the fatigue of failure.
There is a neat little vocabulary word known as time under tension. This is the amount of time your muscles are contracting during an exercise. The greater amount of time your muscles can withstand under tension, the less likely you are to fatigue.
The exercises to improve conditioning are less specific than the primary assistance exercise but they are still extremely effective. They are often referred to as small exercises.
We are going to start with the primary assistance lifts first. Then we will explore the smaller exercises.
Primary Assistance Exercises
Alright, you have read about this exercise plenty of time above in the previous sections. Now you are going to learn how to do it.
The push press is the exact same thing as the overhead press except for one difference, leg drive.
I already mentioned that using too much leg drive is cheating for the overhead press, but it is not cheating for the push press.
Using leg drive can add anywhere from 10-20% more weight than your max overhead press. After you become proficient in the movement, the increase in weight will really add some serious overhead strength to your overhead press.
To perform, first get into the same starting position as the standard overhead press. But this time bring your elbows slightly in front of the bar for stability.
Don’t go too far forward, it is not a front squat. You just want to bring the elbows forward for a little bit of stability.
Now keep your torso completely straight and bend your knees forward over your toes. Explode up from here and immediately go right into an overhead press. This means hips forward, chest back. The whole works.
Of course, it will feel a little awkward at first because of the leg drive. But you will notice right away that the bar will have a much more power out of the bottom position.
That is all leg drive. As soon as your legs lock out, push that bar up as hard and fast as possible all the way to lockout.
The added leg drive will help you blast through your old sticking points.
Be careful not to bend the hips in the top position. That is called a jerk.
The jerk as more of a lower body emphasis than the push press does. A correct push press will have the knees ben only once. In the beginning of the exercise only.
A lot of people think the military press and the overhead press are the same thing. Well, they aren’t. In fact, they are actually two different exercises.
The military press has your feet right next to each other, like your standing at attention. Plus, there is no movement in the hips or upper back.
You are standing completely straight and your pressing the bar up from your shoulders without moving at all. This means you will probably have to press the bar up in a curved line.
But this is not a bad thing, because it will make the overhead press much harder. I know this sounds evil, but it is a good thing. Harder exercises will force you to make better gains than easier ones would.
Just remember you are not going to be able to lift as much weight with this exercise as you will with the standard overhead press.
Also remember to pinch your shoulder blades together harder with this variation.
Since the bar will travel in a curved line, your going to have to use more of your upper back to steer it back into the proper bar path.
Seated Overhead Press
Same thing as the regular overhead press, except you are sitting down.
This may sound easier and it just may be in some instances. If you are performing this exercise with a pad against your back, then the exercise can become easier.
With the pad behind you, you can drive your upper back into it and thus gain some tension from your lower body.
With this setup, it is easy to cheat and arch the upper back too much. You can also cheat by having your butt come off the bench. Similar to the bench press.
On the other hand, if you are performing this exercise without a back pad, it is going to be much harder.
It will be much more difficult to cheat and you will not be able to generate as much help from your lower body. But your shoulders will gain an incredible amount of strength.
Behind The Neck Press
The behind the neck press follows the same guidelines as the regular overhead press except there is one major difference. The bar starts on your upper back instead of your shoulders.
Be careful with this exercise. It requires a lot of shoulder mobility, and it also requires plenty of thoracic mobility.
The good news, however, is since the bar is on the upper back, it is already over the mid foot balance point. So you don’t need to move your head out of the way. Once you start pressing the bar, it will move up in a straight line.
But before you actually start pressing the bar, pinch your shoulder blades together as hard as you can. This will help stabilize your shoulders to prevent an impingement, or other injuries.
Just make sure you pinch the lower traps together in the bottom position and pinch the upper traps together in the top position at lockout.
Although you cannot press as much weight with this variation, it is still another useful tool in your training arsenal.
The unique positioning of the bar helps give your nervous system a new stimulus for additional growth and strength.
Similar to the board press, the rack press is a fantastic exercise for targeting your sticking points.
Sticking points are the points of the movement are where you have the most trouble. This is usually where you begin to stall out and the bar comes down on you.
There are usually three main sticking points:
- Off the shoulders
- Elbows at 90 degrees
If you have trouble off the shoulders, it could be due to either weak shoulders or poor technique.
A weak lockout can be from weak triceps and is not usually as common except during hi rep sets.
The most common sticking point happens when the elbows reach 90 degrees. If you listen to your local bro science, you will get an explanation that the triceps are taking over and the shoulders are having a hard time transitioning to the triceps.
This is not true at all. Sure the triceps start to play a larger role around 90 degrees and up, but the shoulders don’t stop working.
So then, what is the real reason? It all has to do with leverage. When the elbows reach 90 degrees, the bar is the furthest away from the mid foot balance point. This places the muscles of the upper body at a mechanical disadvantage, so they have to work harder.
With the rack press you can target all three of these sticking points and then some.
To start, simply adjust the pins so the bar is starting directly on the sticking point. Load up heavy weight that is either 95% of your 1 RM or 10% above your 1RM.
From a dead stop, press the bar overhead to full lockout.
Then lower back down to the pins and bring the bar back to a dead stop. DO NOT BOUNCE!
This is a very fatiguing exercise so aim for 1-3 sets of 1-3 repetitions.
In addition to the primary assistance exercises, you also need to perform smaller assistance exercises. These exercises are much simpler movements that don’t require as much neurological output. Therefore, they will not fatigue you as much.
With that said, you may be asking yourself, why do I need to do them?
Small exercises serve on major role in your workouts, conditioning.
To put it as simple as possible, you need to be physically prepared for training. All physical training, including strength training, is built on a solid base of conditioning.
Your muscles need to be able to generate enough force to lift the barbell under a specific duration of time. This is called time under tension.
The primary assistance exercises will help develop better movement patterns and technique. The small exercises will help increase your tolerance for time under tension.
Perform at least 2-4 of these exercises AFTER the primary assistance exercise for 3-6 sets of 10-20 repetitions each.
Dumbbell Shoulder Press
The dumbbell shoulder press can be done either sitting on a bench, or standing. You can pick whichever you would like to do. But as a recommendation, try to do them standing only if you are doing the seated overhead barbell press for the primary assistance exercise.
Simply grab a pair of dumbbells and hike them up to your shoulders using your legs. You can clean them up to your shoulders if you are standing.
Once the dumbbells are in the bottom position, you want to move your elbows slightly in front of your body. You want them to be tucked in about 45 degrees.
You don’t want them flared out to the sides. The shoulder will be much less stable in this position.
Once in the correct position, just press the dumbbells straight up to lockout and then lower them back down to the starting position.
When pressing to lockout, turn your palms forward to add some torque to the movement. This will assist the lockout. Plus it will bring the dumbbells back inline with the body.
The dumbbell shoulder press is much less technical compared to the traditional overhead press because you don’t have to worry about getting your head out of the way.
The Arnold press is a clever exercise from Arnold Schwarzenegger. It is similar to the dumbbell shoulder press except you start with the dumbbells out in front of you with your palms facing you.
You then start pressing the dumbbells out to lockout while at the same time turning your palms forward and bringing the dumbbells in line with the body during the lockout.
Reverse the movement and bring the dumbbells back down to the starting position.
One thing you will notice with the Arnold press is how much further the dumbbells are in front of your body. Plus the hand position.
This adds a whole new dynamic to the exercise that makes it fantastic for targeting the middle deltoid. Since the hand is supinated the front deltoid plays a much smaller role, especially in the bottom position.
The Arnold press is a fantastic assistance exercise to add to any upper body pressing program. It will increase both the overhead press and the bench press.
Another fantastic exercise for the middle deltoids.
To perform the side raise, stand up with a pair of dumbbells in your hands and simply lift them out straight to your sides.
Hold for one second and then lower them back down to your sides.
The biggest mistake you will see is lifting the dumbbells up too far above the shoulders. You only want the dumbbells up to 90 degrees at the top, otherwise you will stress the biceps too much.
We have already targeted the middle and front delts, now we need to balance the shoulder out and tackle the rear deltoid muscle.
Reverse flys are the best way to do this.
Grab a bench and a pair of dumbbells, not too heavy, this is a small muscle group. Hold the dumbbells in your hands and lean your forehead into the bench. This is to prevent cheating.
Maintain a neutral spine and slightly bend your elbows. Now pinch your shoulder blades together and lift the dumbbells out to your sides.
The bench makes it very difficult to cheat. The most common way you can cheat is by using your spine as momentum to swing the weights up. You will know very quickly if you are cheating if your head leaves the bench.
Here we take it up a notch. Handstand pushups are one of the pinnacle exercises for not only building strong arms for the overhead press, but they are also great for developing overall athleticism and kinesthetic awareness.
Handstand pushups strengthen all of the muscles of the upper body, especially the upper back, shoulders and triceps. But they also develop a tremendous amount of balance and stability in the shoulder joint as well. So think of them as injury prevention as well.
To perform, simply find a wall with plenty of open space and place your hands down on the ground at least 6-10 inches in front of the wall.
Now place your legs in a sprinter stance with one leg bent and the other leg straight.
Dig your fingers into the ground to generate some tension and stability and kick yourself up onto the wall with your straight leg.
The momentum will invert your torso and your other leg will go up with the first leg. Keep the arms straight the entire time.
Once you are inverted, keep your head and neck neutral. Don’t look down at your hands.
Begin the descent by bending the elbows and lowering yourself all the way down until your head touches the ground. Then push yourself back up to lockout. It’s that simple.
If you need to, find a pillow, or soft pad to place on the ground under your head.
The biggest obstacle to getting your first handstand push up is fear. It is scary being upside down, so it will take courage to make each attempt.
Any Tricep Exercises
The overhead press rely’s on the triceps just as much as the shoulders. So you have to make sure you include plenty of tricep work as well.
If you have read my bench press article, you will find a list of good exercises there that you can include. But it doesn’t have to be anything too specific. Any tricep exercise will do.
Any of the following will work:
- Lying Tricep Extensions
- Dumbbell Rollbacks
- Dicks Press
- J-M Press
- 3-5 Board Presses
- Rope Pulldowns
- Seated Overhead Extensions
- Single Arm Cable Extensions
- Band Resisted Pushups
Add them to your overhead pressing workouts as well. But do them after your shoulder assistance work.
On bench days you train the triceps first because they are the prime movers for the bench, but for the overhead press, fatigued triceps can result in injury during some of the assistance work.
You do not want to press heavy dumbbells over your head with fried triceps.
Congratulations! You made it to the end. Hopefully you see the true power of the overhead press and the applications it has to both your workouts and your life.
Of all the barbell lifts, the overhead press is by far the scariest one. It takes serious guts to press a heavy bar over your head.
But if you stick with you will have one impressive and powerful physique to show for it.
I hope you guys enjoyed the article. If you did enjoy it please feel free to show it by sharing this article with a friend or someone who could use this information. It would really make my day! Thanks!